The Nature of Character

American bald eagle

American bald eagle

I recently learned that all four baby eagles I’d watched hatch and fledge from a nest in Iowa last year, thanks to a web cam, have died. Mostly from electrocution. Power poles are dangerous. It struck me as incredibly sad, but also as an important lesson about nature—bad things happen. The parent eagles are back on more eggs, more future eagles will survive. I never would have known, or cared, but for this emotional connection created through the web.

The story reminded me of another eagle that died, this one in Virginia—the mom. She was hit by a plane at a nearby airport. I’d also gotten to know her thanks to a web cam. Officials removed the babies from the nest because the father wouldn’t be able to care for them alone. People who had been watching this family online took an inordinate interest, moaning anthropomorphically about poor Dad, how bereft he must be without his wife and babies. Well, not, as it turned out. See, eagles don’t have human emotions. He moved on.

At the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute on Cape Cod, a nest cam caught a mom osprey behaving badly. There were calls to do something about it. Like what, mom prison? The WHOI (I love pronouncing that “Whooey”) said they intended to do nothing about the mother whom Mother Nature seemed to imbue with a terrible disposition. All the kids survived and left the nest. Who knows what kind of parents they’ll be, but is that our responsibility?

My final bird lesson I’ll share is that several years ago, I stopped watching a famous documentary narrated by David Attenborough because one bird species treated its offspring horribly—this was not a one-off bad parent; this was how they did things. It broke my heart. If only we cared about human kids the way we do animals.

Renowned primatologist Jane Goodall found lots of horrible ways chimps emulate humans, leaving her to speculate that the only thing separating us from them was our capacity for torture. Chimps, it seems, draw that line, despite participating in war, infanticide, bullying, and rape.

How does this relate to writing? When we create characters, do we dare make them evil? Do we get too emotionally attached to allow anything bad to happen to our protagonist? Will readers hurl our book if our characters aren’t super perfect?

In my upcoming novel, Wishbone (yes, here’s the plug), my early readers described to my delight one character as a “fucking bitch” and “a piece of work.” I had intended to base her on someone I knew in real life, but I so despised that person that I found it impossible to write the character. Who wants to spend years (yes, I spent years on this book) hating a main character? I’d also been taught that you needed the antagonists, the bad guys, to be “likeable.” Not sure I succeeded in that, given my readers’ reactions, but for me, I was able to tap into a core or history of this character that was sympathetic enough to hate her in the moment but understand how she got there. I’m not sure I could do that with the person she was originally based on.

There are people in real life that we well and truly hate. We put some of them to death by execution. Right now, a young man stands trial for committing the heinous Boston Marathon bombings. While Massachusetts does not have the death penalty, he’s in federal court and, therefore, faces that possibility. When picking the jury, only those open to sentencing him to death were allowed to be seated. I wouldn’t have made that jury. I don’t believe in the death penalty, even for him. But I’m probably the only person in Massachusetts who doesn’t have a link to someone affected by the bombing, according to the news media and legal experts pontificating on the trial and whether he can get a fair one here. The defense has been trying to have the trial moved since day one and won’t quit until the appeals are exhausted.

Is the Marathon bomber evil? If he were a fictional character, he’d be well rounded—there’s a lot that’s pretty normal about this guy. Unlike the Sandy Hook shooter—at the elementary school in Connecticut. He had obvious mental health issues, and that massacre bothers me more than the Boston bombing. The reasons why are complicated. Both are cold blooded. The Sandy Hook shooter’s mental status makes him more sad than evil. The Marathon bomber shows no obvious sign of psychotic break or of remorse; we may never know what motivated him.

Around the world, there are young people, male and female, growing up in circumstances that we in the first world would consider horrific, and if a child here was subjected to such abuse, we’d assume they’d have emotional problems. Consider that whole generations, whole populations of areas of the world, millions of young people, are being traumatized, indoctrinated into thinking violence is normal.

That’s what nature does. It means how you are raised affects how you live and behave. We can and should ignore that in the animal world; it’s not our responsibility. But among humans, each and every child is born with unlimited potential that we as a society can either nurture or squander. That was the thinking of another of my characters. Her core belief came from within me, and I surprised myself when I wrote her. I didn’t realize I had such an optimistic outlook on humanity!

What about you? Do you have a favorite villain?


Links: You can find terrific bird cams all over the web, but I like and support the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.


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